Government Must Move Quickly to Prevent Future Domestic Terrorism

By David Schanzer

During congressional testimony last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray stated that “The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now, and it’s not going away anytime soon.”

Wray’s characterization of domestic terrorism as a fatal disease that is rapidly spreading through our body politic should alarm us all. The Capitol riot and recent polls showing strong support for political violence represent dramatic warning signs. Failure to act aggressively against domestic extremism will most surely mean more political violence within our borders, and soon.

Some want to write off the Capitol attack as the work of a small number of rowdy agitators on the margins of a “jovial” political rally. Yet the facts clearly show the ideologically driven rioters pursued mass lawlessness and violence. To date, federal prosecutors have brought charges against over 300 people, but this number is expected to climb to over 500 cases. At least 14 people have been charged with use of dangerous weapons. The mob’s savageness was extreme: One rioter is charged with beating a D.C. police officer with a metal flagpole and then choking him with his bare hands. Shockingly, the accused is a former police officer and Marine.

Unfortunately, the riot may only reflect the tip of the iceberg.

First, who knows how many ideological soulmates each rioter represents. Surely only a fraction of those who shared their views could travel across the country to attend the January 6 event.

Also, it’s worrisome that many strands of domestic extremism have united under the rallying cry that the presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. This claim perfectly encapsulates these groups’ overall grievance that power is slipping from “traditional” white America to a coalition of racial minorities, immigrants and urban educated elites.

A staggeringly large chunk of our population embraces these ideas. A post-inauguration poll by the American Enterprise Institute showed that three-quarters of Republican voters without a college degree believe the election was stolen from Trump. Even more troublingly, 56 percent of all Republicans believe that “the American way of life is disappearing so fast we may need to use force to save it,” with 39 percent supporting the use of violence if “elected officials fail to act.”

Add to this mix the many millions who believe passionately in the QAnon conspiracy, 56 of whom have committed ideologically motivated crimes, including participation in the Capitol riots.

Evidence that some of the most prominent right wing extremist groups may be “splintering” is welcome, but this does not alleviate the threat of future violence. Radicalized individuals will be driven further underground and fall off the radar of law enforcement. Those wishing to find new grievances to become enraged over will not have to look very far, as there has been a surge of undocumented minors towards the border. Recall that fears of migration fueled both the Pittsburgh synagogue and El Paso Walmart mass shootings.

We should also take little solace that the violence did not take place when the latest QAnon conspiracy theory that Trump would be returned to office on March 4 failed to happen. The agitators know that law enforcement is keeping a close eye on Internet chatter — a replication of the Capitol riot is unlikely to occur. What we are far more likely to see are individuals or small groups who become so aggrieved by the direction they perceive the country is headed that they become convinced they must take matters into their own hands. Think more along the lines of the New Year’s day suicide-truck bombing in Nashville, than a large scale insurrectionist assault.

To head off more violence, we need a serious, comprehensive and well-resourced effort to confront domestic extremism.

Extensive Justice Department prosecutions against the Capitol rioters represent an important first step. These prosecutions will send a clear message that our society does not condone violence as a form of political activism. There is no better place than a courtroom for falsehoods to be exposed and baseless theories to be debunked. Prosecutors are quite adept at puncturing shallow theories that the rioters were legitimate political activists; trials will show quite clearly that they were simply violent thugs.

Law enforcement’s next challenge is to penetrate more deeply into the infrastructure that empowers domestic extremism in America. As we did with al Qaeda following 9/11, we should provide law enforcement sufficient authority and resources to preempt violence before it occurs, principally through collection of intelligence. Making domestic terrorism a federal crime could help provide a legal basis for the intelligence gathering we need to prevent future acts of violence. Budgets at the FBI and Department of Homeland Security for preventing domestic terrorism must be adjusted to reflect the serious threat we face.

The key goal is to follow the evidence as far as it will lead to expose those who are organizing and bankrolling right wing extremism. If cases for terrorism financing can be established, it will go a long way towards unraveling the infrastructure for this movement and deterring such conduct in the future.

We also should not forget the linkage between violence and mental health. COVID has spawned a national mental health emergency that we will need to address as we finally emerge from the pandemic. Indeed, 68 percent of the QAnon followers charged with crimes connected to the Capitol riot had documented mental health concerns.

In the longer term, we should take a hard look in the mirror to ask why so many Americans appear willing to use violence for political gain and why so many have lost faith in our democratic institutions. We need to bolster civics education in our high schools, emphasizing our democracy’s many virtues as well as flaws that demand attention. We should also consider launching a large-scale national service program to give our young people a sense of shared purpose and opportunities to bond with Americans from outside their geographical and cultural bubbles. Healing our nation will require bold actions; we need more than calls for unity, but rather programs and structures that will actually build a shared national identity that can transcend tribalism and polarization.

There is no time to wait.

In the summer of 2001, CIA Director George Tenet famously warned that the “system was blinking red,” but he could not raise sufficient concern within the federal government to prevent the 9/11 attacks. Simply “moving on” from the Capitol riot is not an option. To avoid more violence, the government must act swiftly and aggressively.

David Schanzer is a professor at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

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